Off the coast of Colombia, there are three islands defined by their natural beauty: San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina. This archipelago constitutes the largest island territory in the country, spanning 350,000 square kilometers.
The mangroves that line the islands serve as nurseries for marine species that go on to populate other ecosystems, like coral reefs and sea grasses. That’s why the islands’ inhabitants, who rely on fishing as their source of food and income, are dependent on mangroves. The mangroves are also a draw for tourists, as are the island’s beaches. Visitors can traverse them by boat and in some sections, on foot.
Two tropical storms, hurricanes Iota in 2020 and, to a lesser extent, Julia in 2022, devastated the mangroves of San Andres and Providencia, damaging 48% and 79% of their trees, respectively. This left the islands more vulnerable to coastal erosion and the effects of storms. In addition, the lack of proper waste disposal in the islands has left these coastal forests filled with garbage, contributing to their deterioration.
Three months after Hurricane Julia, Colombian journalist María Claudia Davila was awarded a story grant by EJN to report on the restoration efforts to protect the islands’ mangroves. Radionica, a public radio station where Davila worked at the time, ran the story on their website and promoted it in their broadcasts.
Using the EJN grant, she was able to travel to the archipelago and talk to the leaders and researchers who work on mangrove restoration ventures.
By highlighting these initiatives, this media coverage reiterated the importance of mangrove ecosystems to local communities who actively participated in environmental protection. Some island residents felt that it also indirectly resulted in tighter protection of these protected areas.
Providencia: the challenges of recovering a damaged ecosystem
Davila covered the rehabilitation of Providencia’s mangroves, which bore the brunt of the impact of the storms. The Colombian government financed various initiatives, where private entities were hired to work alongside Coralina, San Andres’ and Providencia’s regional environmental authority, in reforestation efforts.
Davila highlighted one involving Mas Bosques, a non-profit organization that was contracted to take 27,500 saplings, distributed between 7,000 red mangroves and 20,500 of other dry forest arboreal species, from Old Point Park and transplant them to an area of about 65 hectares in Providencia.
“One of the positive impacts [of the project] was the contact with the community. The people were able to realize that the mangrove was not just a place filled with mosquitoes but an important ecosystem that protected them from the storms. Many families participated in the restoration efforts. it was very interesting”, said Gloria Murcia, a biologist at Coralina.
Murcia pointed out that in the aftermath of the hurricanes, the community began to change their perception of the mangroves and the ecosystem services they provide. Davila’s report reinforced this perspective by giving it visibility.
"The article surprised the community because we understood that people in the heartland of the country were very aware of the work we were doing. It showed that here we can grow our mangroves, monitor them, and take care of them, especially the red mangrove, which is the most resistant and the one that helped us the most to control the swell when the hurricane hit," said Virginia Webster, a Providencia resident who participated in the project with Más Bosques and was inspired to teach students in her grandchildren’s school how to propagate and plant samplings.
Island residents maintain that more needs to be done.
"People were very impressed with what has been achieved [so far] and think that planting should continue…. There is still a long way to go, but there are areas where we can see the recovery," adds Webster, who this year was invited to participate in a new mangrove restoration initiative led by the archipelago's government and the organization Corpoagrocentro, in which 12,700 seedlings were planted.
The Coralina team has embarked on another project with the help of UNESCO, to “further integrate the community in these processes and promote education on mangroves”, Murcia added.
For now, though, the survival rate of these transplanted trees is unknown. Thus far, there has been little follow-up in terms of monitoring the state of the saplings, said a community leader in Providencia, who chose to remain anonymous.
Mangrove restoration can be very challenging. These plants depend on a fine equilibrium of fresh and salt water, so both the tides from the ocean and freshwater are necessary for the growth of a mangrove forest. In Providencia, storms blocked some of the island’s streams with mud and debris, causing areas of mangrove to die off completely, and the normal water flow has yet to be restored. Because of this, some residents believe that reforestation alone is insufficient to regenerate the ecosystem and that proper monitoring and hydrological studies are needed.
Securing the island’s mangroves
Media attention on the mangroves had other ripple effects, too.
Before the feature, there were reports of robberies happening at the Old Point Regional Point Park, which corresponded to a rise in crime in the last few years for the whole island. Davila noted there was little by way of security for tourists who would visit the mangroves at the Park in San Andres.
This had begun to take a toll on tourism. 2023 saw 33% fewer tourists and temporary workers on the islands, exacerbated in no small part by the closure of two low-cost airlines that used to serve the archipelago.
After the story was published, scientists at Coralina noted improved security in the region.
“This last year we have received a lot [more] support from the Carabineers [environmental police unit] with constant patrols,” explained Nacor Bolaños, biologist and coordinator of protected areas at Coralina.
Bolaños, who had made repeated requests for police support to improve security in the parks over the years, said his office redoubled their efforts to strengthen Coralina’s relationship with the authorities as a result of the story.
The publication put additional focus on the fact that something had to be done because visitors to the park were being lost, and therefore, it resulted in increased attention on the area.
Victor Vargas, captain of the Carabineer police unit on the island, was not directly aware of Davila’s story, but recognized that insistence and joint work with Coralina led to increased security in the park and other environmental reserve zones.
“There have not been any new cases of robberies at the park this year. The people’s perception of security in the mangroves has improved,” he confirmed.
With support from EJN, the journalist also covered a smaller-scale project devised in Luis Amigo School, where two students, Jacobo Howard and Giuseppe Barraza, took it upon themselves to make a small mangrove nursery in their backyards, where they germinated the seeds and later planted them in mangrove forests in San Andres. A total of 298 saplings were sowed, and in December 2023, Howard and Barraza plan to return to the planting sites to monitor their growth.
For Maria Fernanda Amaya, Jacobo’s mother, biologist, and founder of Blue Indigo Foundation, who supervised the students’ project, the story was important for other reasons too.
Davila’s story opened the door for Blue Indigo to work on mangrove recovery. Amaya was soon contacted by INVEMAR, Colombia's national marine research institute, about the opportunity to be part of a new restoration project for the mangroves of Providencia. “This publication helped to put us on the map. They (INVEMAR) think we did it very well, so now they know we can be useful when rehabilitating mangroves,” she said.
The students were also motivated by the recognition they received when Davila reached out to learn more about their efforts.
“Many times, when we work on restoration or this kind of school project, we don’t believe in their significance. But just getting interviewed and seeing other people considering that what you do is valuable and deserving of a publication is enough to give these kids an immense motivation to continue developing their leadership, whether in environmental or social areas,” said Amaya.
The two students went on to graduate with honors, with this project being cited as an example of their empowerment and leadership skills.
Davila’s own professional trajectory has also been impacted by the story. In September 2023 she won a grant to attend the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. “I went there alongside more than 2,000 other journalists. An investigation I and my colleague Lia Valero did on fracking from a gender perspective, as well as the topic of mangrove restoration, caught their attention, and they selected me as one of their grantees. This opportunity has been great for my career,” she said.
Reflecting on the outcomes of the publication, she said: "Impact can be measured in many ways, not only when a major political, social or economic change occurs. It can also be the generation of knowledge when a little-known topic is addressed in the media, the opening of social conversation on a topic."
“The story achieved its purpose, which was to shed light on what’s still missing in terms of knowledge and responsibility,” she added.
“I believe we should keep asking these sorts of questions, showing the importance of mangroves, and most of all making responsible parties [state entities tasked with environmental protection and conservation at both national and regional levels] take accountability for their rehabilitation. The burden should not fall only on a few schoolchildren and their teachers,” Davila emphasized.
Indeed, Colombia’s new government, which came into power in August 2022, was elected under the banner of environmental protection and the fight against climate change.
After Hurricane Julia, the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development vowed to restore Providencia’s marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, Davila expressed that she hadn’t seen any more statements regarding the topic since her story was published.
“[It’s] very unfortunate because the question that remains is whether there has to be an extreme weather event that puts people and the ecosystem at risk for them to do something quickly.
Banner image: Providencia’s residents are involved in mangrove restoration / Credit: Coralina.